A koori perspective

In A Koori Perspective blatant political slogans punctuated more subtle explorations of urban Aboriginal experience. Vastly different, it was pointed out by Sydney Morning Herald critic, Christopher Alien, from what he described (SMH, 2/6/89) as "the rarefied and specialised Perspecta culture" which predominated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

This broad survey show of urban aboriginal art programmed to coincide with and thus be part of Perspecta '89, met with Alien's criticism for having an "alien" relationship to work housed in the central AGNSW location.

Mr Alien said that because Koori artists are not involved in "Perspecta culture" which he defines as the "intellectually top heavy, terminal introversion of late 20th century European culture", "nor (involved) in the corresponding spiral of innovation in the arts" that "their inclusion in the orbit of Perspecta, therefore, and particularly in the setting of Artspace, is inappropriate from their own point of view and their own interest."

Yet to exclude Koori work from holding even a marginal status in a show which purports to be a survey of contemporary Australian art (generally understood as its purpose until its curators reveal otherwise), I suggest is problematic. That is especially so if the rationale for exclusion is made on the basis that the work is not similar in concern to that produced by its white counterparts. Surely, this reeks of that chauvinistic beast, assimilationstyle thinking.

At any rate the Koori show was not stealing the limelight; it was, after all, held at Artspace, a venue with a vast distance in terms of both geography and institutional kudos from the AGNSW. Indeed, A Koori Perspective, by being held in this venue, was merely mirroring the marginal relationship of Koori artists in relation to the white art world.

As for the work itself, issues such as deaths in custody, lost generations and racist humour, were the themes in work which ranged from highly polished paintings, to photographic installation and child-like collage.

Curated by Koori artist Avril Quaill, a painter based with the Boomalli Aboriginal Collective, the show was an extension of Boomalli 's policy of promoting Aborigine's control over their cultural production and representation.

Says Ms Quaill: "Some have been shocked that this work is so political. The irony is, they are used to seeing traditional aboriginal art which, because it is heavily coded, does not appear to be political but is, in fact, all about the land rights issue ."

Quaill selected the works from artists based all over Australia. Works by the emerging artists are adjacent to those by Trevor Nickolls, Lin Onus, Fiona Foley, Judy Watson, Michael Riley and Jeffrey Samuels.

A series of recent drawings, Who 's Laughing? by Pam Johnston presented texts of "blackfella" jokes overlayed with drawings. The artist admitted this approach was likely to provoke hostility from Kooris as it could be seen to validate that style of humour. Yet in the work a critical stance was maintained through the rendering ; an obvious bleakness in tone conveying the artist's belief that racist jokes are a form of psychological genocide. Emerging artist, David Fernando, is the first Koori artist to deal in visual terms with the issue of lost generations-a term which refers to the situation where children of aborigines were stolen from their parents and placed in missions.

The vibrant use of colour in Ferndando's paintings can also be seen in the comic portraits of Slim Dusty and Charlie Perkins by Robert Campbell Junior, a more established Kempsey artist who shows at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

Some of the more complex works in the show were produced by Judy Watson whose work deals with the meeting of Western and aboriginal art traditions. The painting, Between, features shadowy classical Greek statues seemingly caught between totemic-like structures which at once evoke primitive phalli and Greek columns.

Another Lovely Day, an installation by photographer, Michael Riley, explores the relationship between Western notions of the universe and questions surrounding Aboriginal representation.

Western religious iconography is evoked in a crucifix comprised of portraits of Aborigines with picture frames thrust loosely over them.

One portrait, repeated thrice, has nails piercing the photograph at forehead level. Beneath is a text with a dialogue of quotes between Einstein, a critic of Einstein and Riley himself. Here, while the Christ figure is evoked so too is the issue of deaths in custody.

Indeed, one contribution is from Lindsay Albert Johnson currently in jail in northern NSW. He depicts his experience of prison in a painting featuring black hands in white chains hovering over a group of circular motifs symbolising the dreaming.

"The problem facing many of the Koori artists ," says Quaill, "is what to do when you have lost your language. The issue of copyright in relation to traditional aboriginal art is as relevant to Koori artists as it is to white artists."

Many respond, she says, by developing their own personal symbolism. Painter, Vanessa Fisher depicts traditional stories from Raper River using personal motifs which draw on those of traditional Aboriginal culture.

Trevor Nickolls adopts a variation of the X-Ray style from the Northern Territory, which he incorporates with cross hatching.

Fiona Foley's Melancholy uses a less typically Aboriginal medium, collage. Memorabilia ranging from an old love letter, to a photograph of Hawke's historic meeting with the Aborigines at Barunga, create a two dimensional time capsule which is both personal and sociological.

Among Fernanda Martins contributions is a work about being pregnant, and Sally Morgan offers a political work, Dogtag, and a whimsical screen print, Men and Ducks.

The lack of readily available information on each of the pieces, detracted from the show, the xeroxed item from the Perspecta catalogue not being adequate. When dealing with a cross-cultural artist audience relationship, especially when drawing on a tradition as complex as the aboriginal, art does not necessarily speak for itself.

Quaill says part of the reasoning behind this show was to initiate a national survey of aboriginal artists to coincide with the next Perspecta Artspace launched Koori Art '84 helping to initiate an awareness of urban based aboriginal art within the broader community.

Says Director of Artspace Sally Couacaud, "A Koori Perspective, Artspace's contribution to Perspecta '89, is about colonisation and visibility, about perspectives that go beyond those determined by fixed point-of-view ... "